Eternity and Forgetting: On the Melancholy of Abstraction. John Kent.

Eternity and Forgetting: On the Melancholy of Abstraction

The theory of thought is like painting: it needs that revolution which took art from representation to abstraction. This is the aim of a theory of thought without image. (Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 1968.)

Memory, the central problem of historical evolution, is also the central problem of art, which is essentially a method of fabricating artificial memories. (Vilém Flusser and Louis Bec, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Instit Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste, 1987.)

[…] anyone who is carried away by his reasoning forgets that he is using reason, and this forgetting is the condition of all creative thought, indeed of thought itself. (Emil Cioran, The Fall into Time, 1964.)

Vilém Flusser’s ’My Atlas’ is a hyperstitional tale which traces the evolution of maps and atlases from the time of the Mercator projection in 1569 — the cylindrical model which became the standard for centuries — all the way up to and into a speculative future of fully virtual cartography. The philosopher frames this account through a number of recollections with his grandfather, wherein each stage of development was stimulated by a desire to increase the fidelity of mapping. Unfortunately, the inherent paradox of this process meant that any rectification to the current projection was simultaneously accompanied by the introduction of new distortions, leaving the surface of the earth to become evermore “uncanny”.[1] For Flusser, maps are models; that is, they “are tools for the understanding of phenomena”.[2] Each map, as well as the individual lands plotted within, is therefore a concrete manifestation that attempts to expand and(/or) refine the epistemic reach of the human. However, we must always remember, as Borges’ ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (1946) so succinctly demonstrates, that the map is not the territory. There is no model so complex and accurate that it would be able to collapse itself entirely onto that which it seeks to give meaning to; or, to say it another way, the depth of the object always contains an excess that cannot be grasped by the model.

Although the activity of cartography is principally coupled to the project of spatial representation, one of the lessons that Flusser’s ruminations on atlases provides is that despite this functional goal, the end results always retain non-equally distributed transformations, meaning that the accuracy of any map liquidates at certain points. Ultima Thule, the title of John Kent’s most recent exhibition of abstract paintings, is a term indicative of such representational breakdown. Originating in antiquity, and referring to an island that exists beyond the borders of the currently mapped territory, this classification, eventually by the medieval era, had crystallised into that which signified the furthest reach of knowledge itself. The farthermost Thule is that impossibly distant land whose chthonic coordinates spool and bind and fracture up against one another in the excretion of a virtual effluent which serves as a reservoir for speculative thought. Thinking here plots past what can be empirically perceived and objectively verified, on into the realm of a radical outside whose destination was the dream of so much of the abstraction associated with the modernist avant-garde; the spectres of Malevich, Kandinsky, and Mondrian echo forcefully here. Accordingly, Ultima Thule as a concept is caught in a double-bind, with the cartographic metaphor signalling an event horizon at the edge of reason and representation, and simultaneously a starting point that fictively gestures towards thinking beyond the limit. Although a point on the map, its position and topology is decidedly inaccurate and endlessly abstract.

The plight of abstraction in contemporary painting is itself locked within another kind of double-bind, striving in one direction for pictorial arrangements that seek to sever themselves from the logic of representation, all the while being pulled in another towards the history of over one-hundred years of abstract canvases. It can sometimes be difficult when staring at a work of contemporary abstraction to actively disassociate the senses from that historical legacy. If we are to confront the abstract canvas as a kind of map — which the artist Kent in this instance encourages — then the question of how we should navigate their terrain naturally arises. How do we proceed forward across this diagram of a newly charted territory without resorting back to familiar representational landmarks and historical reference points? Herein memory, the basin of reason, becomes a series of knots that shackles the desire for a truly free and transgressive experience.

A path forward is hinted at in the title of Kent’s piece Saturnian Dusk. The maroon square is dominated by a lighter circle — receding into the background of the canvas — surrounded by creamy, disintegrating wisps of the brush that automatically conjure images of the cosmological sublime from which it would ostensibly derive its name. Burnt images of the gas giant dart in and out of my consciousness, coalescing with direct perception of the painting whose surface flickers across my retinas. They meld into the singular and then, just as suddenly, fragment into multiple, making it increasingly difficult to separate the one from the other. Saturn as a pictorial signifier represents a contorted abstraction of a celestial body whose surface and innards lay outside the realm of a perception disencumbered from technological augmentation. So, it becomes, and has served as, an abstraction; one historically linked to the state of melancholy.[3]

The concept of melancholy gestated along a number of intellectual traditions — mathematics, medicine, and philosophy — in ancient Greece, which culminated in the theory of the four humours. Blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm became associated with certain attributes (blood was warm and moist) and dispositions of the human. Melancholy is bootstrapped to black bile, and around the fourth-century BCE the notion undergoes a transformation that tethers it to the coupling of heroism and madness — much later it is this enduring connection which inspires the cult of the artist as romantic genius. As Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl write in their monumental study of Saturn and melancholy, the trait became understood as:

The clouding of consciousness, depression, fear and delusions, and finally the dread lycanthropy, which drove its victims through the night as howling, ravening wolves […]. This substance was […] generally accepted as the source of insanity[4]

By the era of the late middle-ages and early Renaissance, the writers of that day took it as an “incontestable fact” that a melancholic temperament “stood in some special relationship to Saturn”.[5] Through the Arabic astrologer Abû-Ma’šar we learn that Saturn presides over the melancholic’s blindness, loneliness, ‌penchant for overthinking, and their leave of reason. Melancholy therefore becomes situated as that which signifies a descent from the order of rationality into the domain of madness, and with it the festering of unbridled creativity; that is, a forgetting of reason, and with it the typical representations of the world.

If we extend the cartographic metaphor for Kent’s Ultima Thule, then the series of individual paintings can be understood as an archipelago. Each taken to be an island of forgetting which stress the boundaries of the imagination in order to manufacture new realities. Such a task is difficult in a contemporary world overrun with images from every direction (and all the time). When cast ashore on a deserted island, the tendency is to reconstruct what is familiar. As Gilles Deleuze notes in his critique of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), “[n]othing [there] is invented”[6]; it was merely a recapitulation of a bourgeois enclave. The spectre of representation occupies a similar position in the quest for abstraction in painting. However, in the visual clutter of today’s world it could be proposed that one of the main uses of art — if it could be said to have any use at all — is to provide a space that not only facilitates, but actively fosters, a forgetting of the world. This action is not to turn one’s back to reality, but rather to reimagine it anew.

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[1] Vilém Flusser, ‘My Atlas’, in Flusser Studies, 14, 2012, 1; originally written c.1973.

[2] Vilém Flusser, ‘On the Crisis of Our Models (Theoretical Considerations and a Practical Purpose)’, in Andreas Ströhl (ed.), Writings: Vilém Flusser, University of Minnesota Press, 2002, 75; originally written c.1980.

[3] Peter Osborne notes that the trajectory of abstraction within modern philosophy is bound to “a certain melancholy”; a reaction against the “loss of the real object”. See: Peter Osborne, ’The reproach of abstraction’, in Radical Philosophy, 127, 2004, 21.

[4] Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019, 15; originally published in 1964.

[5] Ibid, 127.

[6] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Desert Islands’, in Desert Islands and Other Texts, Semiotext(e), 2004, 12.

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